Translated from French by Chantal Wright with an introduction by Marko Pajević
Henri Meschonnic (1932–2009) was a French linguist, literary scholar, poet and translator of the Bible who developed a theory of language based on the notion of rhythm. He was a major French intellectual of his generation and had a particularly strong influence in translation studies. His theory of language, however, concerns many fields and aims at transforming notions such as rhythm, the subject, sense, the poem and, indeed, the episteme altogether, thus developing a poetics of society (cf. Pajević and Smith 2018).
Meschonnic is difficult to read since he developed his own terminology and an often elliptic style, working against convention. All his concepts – such as rhythm, the continuous, the subject, modernity, the poem, orality – are interrelated, and only by reading him widely and having one concept illuminate the others, can one fully grasp them as an ensemble (Pajević 2011). Meschonnic published a good sixty books.
Proceeding from Émile Benveniste's (1966) linguistic archaeology of the notion of rhythm, and discovering that this term, before Plato, designated a particular configuration of movement or a characteristic arrangement of parts in an ensemble (Benveniste 1966), Meschonnic developed his poetics of rhythm and made of the traditional formal notion of rhythm a semantic one. Rhythm thus becomes central to signifiance, that is, the way meaning is constituted. In Meschonnic's definition, rhythm is the organisation of sense in discourse. And since sense is an activity of the subject, rhythm – as a configuration of the subject in its discourse – produces and transforms the subject. His theory of rhythm thus is also a theory of the subject and develops a historical anthropology of language. Throughout his life, Meschonnic attacked ‘the sign’ and ‘semiotics’, particularly their claim to an exclusive representation of language, demonstrating that they cannot explain important activities of language. He presented rhythm as an alternative approach to language and hence to the subject and society, based on the continuous of language in discourse.
The following text is an extract from his magnum opus Critique du rythme. Anthropologie historique du langage. It exposes in a nutshell some of the main notions of his theory, the relation of histheory of rhythm to the concepts of sense, discourse, subject and semiotics.